Classic and New Hymns for Lent and Easter

Martin Luther’s Reformation took wings when he realized the importance of hymns that would preach Lutheran doctrine to the people in their language. His hymns swept Northern Europe—and the countries that would become Lutheran: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Slovakia, Sweden—almost as fast as they could be translated into the vernacular language by the respective reformers of each country, many of whom were students of Luther in Wittenberg. Very soon each country developed its own tradition of hymnody, always taking the best from Germany, which became the shared hymnic tradition of

Lutherans around the world. “Lord, Thee I Love,” the great hymn by Martin Schalling, is an example of this tradition, beloved in all Lutheran ethnic traditions.

I learned to love the Dano-Norwegian tradition of hymnody as a child from my pastor father, who could preach and sing in Norwegian along with my mother. I did not learn Norwegian until I was an adult, and now that both are gone, I wish I could talk with them, especially my father, who knew far more about this tradition than I do. I have spent the past forty years learning and translating the best of the Scandinavian traditions into English. The rhythms and melodies of these old folk hymns are the shape of my own piety these days.

Over the years I have come to understand something about the new hymnody in Scandinavia, with its insistence on simple non-theological language. Lisbeth Smedegaard Andersen of Denmark, author of “Awe Filled the Room,” is a chief exponent of this movement today. Her work is fascinating for its poetic language and for its ability to portray the biblical scene very concretely, as well as preach it in a very imaginative way.

Finally, I offer one of my own hymns, “Chief Cornerstone.” My work is probably more affected by Calvin’s notion of biblical paraphrases than by Luther’s of preaching the Scripture lesson. This past year, however, I have been writing a hymn every week to fit the lectionary, without paraphrasing the lesson but rather preaching it.

Lord, Thee I Love with All My Heart

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“Lord, Thee I Love With All My Heart” (herzlich lieb; Lutheran Book of Worship 325), a classic Lutheran chorale, is based on Psalm 18, David’s song of thanksgiving for being delivered from the hand of Saul, and Psalm 73, a meditation on God’s justice, with the great verse 20, “Whom have I in heaven but thee.” Written by Martin Schalling (1532-1608), it ranks among the favorite Lenten and funeral hymns of many Lutherans, from Philip Jakob Spener, the founder of Lutheran pietism, to J. S. Bach.

Born in Strassbourg, Schalling studied with Luther’s closest colleague, Philip Melancthon, becoming one of his favorite pupils. After achieving his M.A. in 1550, he taught for a time at Wittenberg with Melancthon. Schalling’s career as a teacher and preacher was marked by a period of great theological turmoil that preceded the Thirty Years’ War, which desolated central Europe from 1618-1648.

The mild-mannered Schalling must have longed for release from the hair-splitting theological battles of the day. While personal expressions of feelings were not common in the hymns of that day, one hears Schalling’s hymn as a deeply personal confession of faith as he clung to the Lord Jesus for life. The marvelous last three lines of the hymn, which begin with a leap of a sixth from the previous chord, match the meaning of the text with its almost shout of anguish and conviction. The second stanza is rich in the understanding of Christ’s two great commandments: to love the Lord and the neighbor as oneself. Bach used the beginning of the third stanza as the ending of his St. John’s Passion—the final prayer after the death of Jesus.

Lord, let at last thine angels come,
to Abr’ham’s bosom, bear me home,
that I may die unfearing:
and in its narrow chamber keep
my body safe in peaceful sleep
until thy reappearing.

While this chorale will be challenging today, choirs could sing the first stanza from the Bach harmonized version in the St. John Passion, perhaps even with its instrumental accompaniment, with the congregation joining on the second and third stanzas. I also heard it sung very soberly and beautifully in the jazz style of the German jazz group Choral Concert on their CD of German passion hymns, called simply Passion (Klangräum LG6035).

Once, as this hymn was sung in my congregation, the woman sitting beside me got out her pen and notebook to mark it as a hymn to be sung at her funeral. The words and the melody had deeply moved her because it gave her words with which to meet her own death. We need a few of these hymns today. After all, one of the focuses of Lent and Easter is to teach people how to live and die in Christ.

Awe Filled the Room

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The hymn “Awe Filled the Room” (stilheden hersket) from contemporary Denmark is for the Easter season, a meditation on the farewell discourses of our Lord. Its author, Lisbeth Smedegaard Andersen (1934-), is one of Denmark’s most accomplished contemporary preachers and hymn writers. A retired pastor who formerly served one of Denmark’s most prestigious churches, the historic Holmen congregation in downtown Copenhagen, Andersen has been writing hymns for many years. Married at a young age to her childhood sweetheart, Jens, and the mother of four children, she returned to her studies in the 1970s at Aarhus University in Denmark, where she studied both theology and art. Along with being one of Denmark’s best preachers and hymn writers, she has established herself as one of the leading experts on Christian art in Denmark; she has written several books on Danish church art as well as a ground-breaking book on Rembrandt.

Like many of her contemporaries in Scandinavia, Andersen is concerned that current hymns speak effectively to the contemporary person in nontraditional language, since the hymnological or theological language of the past, with its religious formulas, is foreign to most Scandinavians today. Thus, many Scandinavian hymns today speak of doubt and the difficulties of belief in such an age as this.

Most of Andersen’s hymns are written as though she were a modern visitor at the original scene in the Scriptures. In this song she is listening to Jesus during his farewell discourses in John, but with what scholars call the post-resurrection understanding firmly in mind. Intended for the third Sunday after Easter in the Danish lectionary, the singer takes the place of one who might have been standing slightly outside of the disciples’ group, watching the situation.

That point of view is important for us because it is probably the way we might be involved in the story now as communicants at the Lord’s table. Drenched in the language of John’s gospel, the hymn helps us express rather normal reactions to the incidents of the last few days of Jesus’ life. In the first stanza, Andersen brings us vividly to the stillness and grief of the Last Supper in Jerusalem. In the second stanza, she reacts to Jesus’ words “a little while” as one who remembers the event after the resurrection. In the next two stanzas she takes small pieces of Jesus’ phrases and reacts in similar ways, the fourth stanza echoing nicely with the second. The final stanza begins with Jesus’ words at the beginning of John 14, but also the words of the Sur sum corda spoken by the pastor at the Lord’s Supper—“Lift up your hearts!” Now Jesus is with us in the sacrament. At last we hear the good news when, like the two at Emmaus, we leave the place with our hearts burning within us.

The Chief Cornerstone

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Over the years as the Easter texts are read, I’ve wondered why there are not some really strong hymn texts on Psalm 118: “The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner.” It has been curiously neglected as a source for our greatest Easter hymns. Jesus refers to the psalm in all three synoptic gospels after his parable about the owner of the vineyard who sends his son to harvest the fruits and is killed by the wicked tenants. Peter refers to it in his sermon in Acts 4, and it appears as well in 1 Peter 2:7. It is a central text of our faith, especially at Easter where it is the psalm for all three years of the lectionary for Easter Sunday. In his “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today!” Charles Wesley makes a glancing reference to it in the third stanza: “Vain the stone, the watch, the seal: Christ has burst the gates of hell.” It is, however, not the main theme of the hymn.

When composer Bradley Ellingboe asked me to write a hymn text on the Easter Scripture lessons, I decided that it would be fun to try such a hymn, especially during year A of the common lectionary, since I have always been fascinated by the stones, thieves, and money in the gospel of Matthew. There are several stories in Matthew about thieves and stones that seem to come to an interesting conclusion in Matthew’s story of the resurrection. Jesus warned that the Son of Man would come like a thief in the night; the confession of Peter is the rock on which Jesus would build his church. At the end of Matthew, Jesus is buried in a tomb hewn out of rock, and the Pharisees ask Pilate to set a guard on the sepulcher so that the seal would not be broken and Jesus’ body stolen. After the resurrection, in fact, the guards are bribed with money to lie about the event.

Bradley Ellingboe, graduate of St. Olaf College and Eastman School of Music, is professor of music at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Besides having a full career as a singer, he is well known as a choral director and composer. In 1993, he received the Order of King Olav for his work with the songs of Edvard Grieg. One of the better known contemporary Lutheran composers, Ellingboe’s Requiem has achieved considerable acclaim. He not only wrote the music for the hymn presented here; he also composed an anthem on this text entitled “Chief Cornerstone” for two-part mixed choir and keyboard (Augsburg Fortress 0-8006-7639-4).

Gracia Grindal ( is professor of rhetoric at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota. She has written many hymns, some of which are found in her published collection ,em>We Are One in Christ, and is author of Lessons in Hymnwriting (both available from The Hymn Society,

Reformed Worship 78 © December 2005 Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. Used by permission.